The Supreme Court has ordered a federal court of appeals to consider a Christian college's claim that its religious freedom is threatened by forced funding of abortion under the health care reform law.

"I am very pleased with the High Court's ruling," said Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and founder of the nonprofit litigation group Liberty Counsel, which is representing the university.

The ruling "breathes new life into our challenge" to the Affordable Care Act, Staver said, asserting that mandated abortion funding under the law "collides with religious freedom and the rights of conscience."

On Nov. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Liberty Counsel's petition to have its case reheard by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., allowing the possibility for the Supreme Court to ultimately hear the case within the next year.

The lawsuit, initially filed in 2010 on behalf of Liberty University and two private individuals, challenged both the mandate requiring individuals to obtain health insurance and a regulation requiring employers to offer health insurance to their workers.

In addition to challenging the authority of Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act, Liberty University argued that the law's insurance exchange policies are unconstitutional because they "do not protect against payment for elective abortion coverage."

The university charges that the law includes forced funding of abortion despite religious objections and therefore violates the First Amendment's free exercise of religion protection and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As a Christian institution, Liberty University is morally opposed to abortion and does not cover it in its health care plan, the lawsuit explained.

It observed that under the health care reform law, states that provide for abortion coverage in health plans must segregate funds in order to ensure that no federal money received by a health care exchange can go towards abortions, with a few exceptions. This is in keeping with a law that prohibits the federal funding of most abortions.

However, such segregation is not required for non-federal funds received from individuals or employers enrolled in these health care plans, it noted. Therefore, money from those who religiously object to abortion may still be used to fund its coverage.  

"Plaintiffs must choose between forced purchase of a private insurance product that does not protect their sincerely held religious beliefs or paying a punitive penalty for refusing to compromise their religious beliefs," the lawsuit said.

The health care law has also raised considerable concern about freedom of religion due to its "preventive services mandate," which requires employers including religious schools, hospitals and charitable organizations to offer coverage of contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs.

More than 100 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits over the mandate, and the U.S. bishops have spoken out about the grave threat that it poses to religious liberty.

The Richmond appeals court initially refused to rule on the merits of the Liberty University case last year, arguing that it was premature under the federal Anti-Injunction Act because the penalty for refusing to purchase insurance had not yet taken effect.

However, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that the Anti-Injunction Act does not apply to that portion of the health care law. The court upheld the individual mandate but did not rule on the employer mandate or the religious freedom concerns that are connected with it.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the high court to reopen its case and send it back to the court of appeals to consider these unresolved questions.

The court of appeals will now consider Liberty University's argument that it "has a sincerely held religious belief that it should play no part in abortions, including no part in facilitating, subsidizing, easing, funding, or supporting abortions since to do so is evil and morally repugnant complicity."

In its lawsuit, the university and individual plaintiffs asked the court to issue an injunction protecting them from being "forced to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs about abortion and support of abortion and following a mandate of the federal government."